Should College Apps Ask About Criminal History?


A study conducted by the nonprofit Center for Community Alternatives shows that “zero tolerance” policies in place at high schools can punish students through the college application process when they are required to state whether they have had disciplinary issues.

Working in collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), a 59-question survey was sent to 3,248 member institutions of AACRAO between September 30 and October 29, 2009.  A total of 273 institutions responded to the survey, used for a report titled “The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions.”

According to the findings of the survey, 66% of the institutions who responded to the survey collect data pertaining to criminal justice, although not all of them use the information during their admissions process.  Private and four-year schools were found to be more likely to collect and use this data in comparison to public and two-year schools.  Only 38% said they do not collect such data.  Schools who did not collect data were not any less likely to report their campuses and being unsafe.

Despite the amount of institutions found to be collecting such data, fewer than half said they have written policies in place pertaining to its use, and only 40% of those schools said they train their staff in the interpretation of the information.

New York University is one of the hundreds of colleges across the nation to make use of the Common Application for undergraduate admissions, and has recently announced it will be considering a change to its 2015-16 admissions cycle regarding checking the box asking applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime, according to the NYU website.

MJ Knoll-Finn, NYU’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, said, “Colleges and universities are places that believe in the power of learning to change lives, and that believe in second chances, especially for those who may have made mistakes at a young age. And we are aware of the concerns being raised on a national level about the sometimes disparate impact of the criminal justice system. But the members of our community and the parents of our students also have a reasonable expectation that the University will do all it can to provide a safe learning environment for our students.  NYU is taking steps to try to strike a balance between those two principles.”

Starting next year, all applications to the school will be looked at without prior knowledge of whether the box pertaining to having been convicted of a crime has been checked.  Only after the initial decision has been made will a special team of admissions officers who have been trained on fact-based assessment and issues of bias take a second look and make a final decision as to whether the infraction could cause a denial of admission to the school.